Radio Commentary -- Torture, Morality, and the Antiwar Movement
Human Rights Watch has just come out with a report based on interviews with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne based at Forward Operating Base Mercury, 10 miles east of Fallujah. According to these soldiers, in the time leading up to March 2004, when the 82nd Airborne was replaced by the Marines, torture at FOB Mercury was "systematic and known at varying levels of command."
By the standards of torture already uncovered, in Bagram and elsewhere, this was minor breaking of bones, keeping detainees in stress positions for over 12 hours, denial of food and water. Those interviewed didn't speak of electric shock, beating prisoners to death, making them roll in feces, or other inhuman extremes.
But what's interesting is the clear light these interviews shed on the motivation for these acts. Sometimes these things were done at the behest of the CIA and intelligence services to prepare detainees for interrogation, and at other times simply for fun or because people were bored.
In the following quote, keep in mind that PUC (person under control) is the standard term in Iraq for detainees:
"On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. One day [a sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger, a metal bat. He was the bleeping cook. He shouldn't be in with no PUCs."
These acts were commonly spoken of. There were two things people liked to do. One was to "Blank a PUC" (it rhymes), which meant to beat him. The other was to "Smoke a PUC," meaning to keep him in stress positions for hours.
According to an interviewee, " We had guys from all over the base just come to guard PUCs so they could bleep them up."
This is not a story of our "brave, virtuous boys and girls" who volunteer to protect America, only to be deceived and forced into beating and torturing defenseless Iraqis by heartless, cruel elites. And neither is the entire war on Iraq. However heartless and cruel those elites are, their attitudes are reflected often with enthusiasm -- in a great many ordinary Americans and an even higher percentage of soldiers.
This is a reality that the antiwar movement doesn't want to grapple with. Strangely, to much of the movement, this war is a moral horror being carried out on the ground not merely by extraordinarily virtuous human beings, but by veritable angels in human flesh.
Someone who, unlike me, was not forced by Hurricane Rita to cancel attendance at the big DC protest, told me of seeing a woman with a T-shirt that said "Support Our Troops" along with a graphic that is one of the iconic pictures of tortured Iraqis (if I remember correctly, the Hooded Man). It is hard to overstate the moral (and intellectual) idiocy of such a juxtaposition (no, it was not ironic).
This strategy of cognitive dissonance has not worked. Even though we have a cause that in theory everyone ought to support after all, the United States is losing the war we have not achieved mainstream legitimacy. One index of that was that, with a few honorable exceptions, celebrities and Democratic politicians stayed away from the protest in droves. And, though it's hard to find anyone enthusiastic about this war, the number of people for immediate withdrawal hovers around 25-30% in most polls.
Perhaps people find it odd, as I do, to imagine that such an immoral enterprise as the Iraq war is being carried out by such paragons of virtue as our boys and girls, and thus lose the moral dimension of our critique. Perhaps it is easy for them to see a man screaming in Arabic and sawing off a man's head on videotape as savage and barbaric but not so easy for them to see a group of fatigue-wearing men beating a young Afghan taxi-driver to death that way and perhaps we haven't helped them to do so. And perhaps, just perhaps, that is why they continue to accept the idea that we can't "cut and run," that we can't abandon the good things we're doing in Iraq.
In a stunning display of respect for Iraqi sovereignty, British soldiers assaulted Basra's central jail with tanks in order to free two British soldiers who had been arrested on charges of shooting two Iraqi policemen.
The British Ministry of Defence blatantly lied about the incident, claiming that the soldiers were released as a result of negotiations, but stopped short of denying that one phase in the negotiations involved tanks crashing through the walls of the jail.
According to the governor of the province, Mohammed al-Waili, the force involved 10 tanks and numerous helicopters. While the jail was being stormed, about 150 prisoners escaped.
Afterward, an angry Basrawi mob confronted British troops and was fired on, with at least two dead; then, they set fire to two British tanks.
And, remember the British are the ones always held up as the "good guys" in the occupation. It's true that they have had far fewer incidents to deal with than American forces, partly because they have largely just backed the Badr brigades' imposition of gang rule in Basra.
If you're wondering why, given the worse behavior of American troops and the even lower respect for Iraqi sovereignty they have, this kind of thing has not happened with American forces, just ask yourself what would happen if a bunch of hajis tried to arrest American soldiers for shooting at innocent people, with no more authority than the fact that they are police representing the sovereign Iraqi government. They'd never get those prisoners to the jail.
Radio Commentary -- Race and America, After the Deluge
Two weeks ago, I said that the Katrina disaster had for once created a real window for a serious discussion of race.
Well, no sooner did the window open than it commenced closing. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center released on September 8, when asked if the government's response would have been quicker had most victims been white, only 17% of whites said "Yes," as opposed to 66% of blacks. Only 32% of whites said the disaster shows racial inequality is still a major problem, along with 71% of blacks.
This is as large a racial divide as one could imagine on any pre-Katrina issues.
The window hasn't completely shut; one still sees solemn talking-head panels on cable news shows debating the significance of class and racial divides, something unheard of before the deluge. And the president's recent admission that there is still poverty and inequality resulting from past racial discrimination can't be a bad thing.
But it is already hard to imagine that this is some fundamental turning point.
There are many reasons for this. You'll never go wrong if you blame white indifference to questions of race or the general tendency of people not to want to keep thinking about anything. Nor would you go wrong, usually, if you blamed the hostility of cable news anchors and media talking heads to discussions of such issues.
And yet such analysis doesn't get us very far.
The fact is, the images of tens of thousands of abandoned African-Americans shocked lots of white people who were previously comfortable, including even cable news anchors who got the rare opportunity to encounter reality.
After the president's speech, ABC did a remarkable thing; instead of going to its usual inane pundits for inane punditry, it went straight to a panel of black flood survivors sitting outside the Astrodome. As if they had just been through a right-wing talking points indoctrination session, they denied that they blamed Bush, blamed Mayor Nagin, and said Bush's speech inspired them. Their interviewer, doing something I've almost never seen, tried over and over to focus their attention on ways to blame Bush and the federal government and they refused.
Now these were normal people, not political analysts.
But they weren't the only ones with nothing to say. In the first few days of the disaster, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Jesse Jackson about the significance of race in the response, how people should think about it, and what they should do about it; looking at his face, it was clear that he really wanted to understand. Jackson, who had earlier exhausted his perspicacity on the subject by remarking that people at the Convention Center looked like they were in the hold of a slave ship, led with the important prescription that flood victims not be referred to as refugees, an idea originated by the Congressional Black Caucus.
The reasoning is that the victims are not refugees, they're Americans, and they shouldn't be equated to miserable starving Third Worlders.
Since that time, this is one of the few "issues" with which people have wrestled, the other being the incredible moral conundrum of whether starving and thirsty people should be allowed to steal food and water. People have gone through soul-searching and decided not to use the word "refugees." People have written columns about how we shouldn't use the word. African-American "men on the street" have been quoted about their own anger at being lumped in with miserable Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans.
This is the big advance in racial thinking won for us by the remnants of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, it is precisely this pernicious American tribalism that is the larger framework of exclusion and hierarchy within which domestic questions of race sit. African-Americans are all too conscious of the fact that, though they may be on the lowest rung in the hierarchy of exclusion here, they are still far above those benighted non-Americans, just as poor whites in the antebellum and Jim Crow South knew that however wretched they were, at least they weren't blacks.
The new racial formations that are shaping people's consciousness in this country aren't simply about skin color and ethnic identification; they weave in questions of national origin, economic status, and, most crucially, political ideology. If we don't try to understand them, we won't be ready to explain them on those rare occasions when people actually ask.
As a major city lies underwater, thousands of dead rot, and tens of thousands of the living starve and dehydrate, a country's autocratic ruler at first continues his vacation, declines generous offers of foreign assistance, and then minimizes the tragedy.
After a growing outcry, said autocrat switches gears, visits the affected area on a special set constructed for a photo-op, diverting or grounding rescue efforts while he's there, and makes sure to go nowhere near the masses of refugees.
His vice president goes on with his vacation while the country goes through its biggest disaster in nearly a century and his secretary of state shows her concern by shopping for $7,000 shoes.
As soon as the disaster hits, the autocrat's cadre of lickspittle sycophants jumps into action, trying to shift the blame from an increasingly unresponsive, bureaucratic, arrogant, and authoritarian government to the unworthy victims of the disaster and their supposed propensity for violence, theft, and general immorality.
Had this happened in North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, everything would have fit perfectly into America's effortless demonology, and it would simply have reinforced our views of how everything really is in this best of all possible worlds.
Instead, it happened right here in America. So stark are the realities of the Great Flood of New Orleans and the subsequent response that, for a few days, even the hysterical self-congratulation of a culture that has lost any ability to understand itself was halted although it seems to be reasserting itself.
This disaster almost defies analysis, certainly in anything short of book length, but a few things have become clear:
Until Thursday, three days after Katrina made landfall and two days after the levees were breached, the overwhelming primary concern of the administration was the effect of the disaster on gas prices nationwide. Even in the most cursory inspection of the president's words on Thursday itself, this fact jumps out, perhaps most strikingly in the following sentences: "In our judgment, we view this storm as a temporary disruption that is being addressed by the government and by the private sector. We've taken immediate steps to address the issue," which are immediately followed by a list of steps relating to oil and gasoline. At first, a truly nonsensical statement the drowning of New Orleans is a "temporary disruption" it gains clarity when one remembers the president's speech patterns and cognitive abilities. He and his cabinet had just been feverishly discussing the price of gasoline, and had decided to say that the storm had caused only a "temporary disruption" in the supply of gasoline. As is his wont, Bush simply robotically repeated that phrase without giving context.
FEMA's primary concern in the first days of the disaster, and, frankly, even in the last few days, was to assert its authority over state and local forces rather than, say, helping the victims of the disaster. According to Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, on Meet the Press: at one point on Saturday, FEMA came and cut the emergency communication lines of the Jefferson Parish sheriff's office; the sheriff restored them and posted armed guards to protect them against FEMA.
There is the first opening in ages (9/11 was another one, but a very difficult one) for a serious national dialogue about race, but it won't be easy. The divergence between the left's understanding of race and racism and that of the mainstream has never been wider.
The particularly disgusting autocratic, incompetent, reflexively government-destroying Bush administration is particularly to blame for this response. But blame is shared much wider, as well. This is an indictment of late American neoliberal capitalism in no uncertain terms and of the reflexively individualistic bent of this entire society. The most striking example is the fact that there was no evacuation plan the residents of New Orleans just left in their cars, clogging up the highways and, even though there was plenty of space in those cars, leaving behind the 100,000 least able to ride out the storm but there are many others. This is also the first opening we've seen to talk about the systemic problems with capitalism, instead of just the symptoms.
In the days to come, people across the country will be searching for answers. They won't get them from what laughably passes as the political opposition in this country. They'll get them from the left or from nobody.
Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, also sees God's mercy in the aftermath of Katrina -- but in a different way. Shanks says the hurricane has wiped out much of the rampant sin common to the city.
The pastor explains that for years he has warned people that unless Christians in New Orleans took a strong stand against such things as local abortion clinics, the yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, and the annual event known as "Southern Decadence" -- an annual six-day "gay pride" event scheduled to be hosted by the city this week -- God's judgment would be felt.
New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion -- it's free of all of those things now," Shanks says. "God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there -- and now we're going to start over again."
Another case in point: Fred Phelps and the mouth-breathers of godhatesfags.com picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and saying that these deaths are God's punishment to the United States for tolerating homosexuals.
These are, of course, extreme elements of the right wing, but they are also not aberrations but epitomes of its exclusionary logic.
Patriotism, jingoism, and old-time religion are the horses the right wing rode in on; they all derive their true force not from great respect for our political system or for personal virtue, but rather from pure tribalism, the division of humanity based on a simple binary exclusion.
But if you start by privileging the nation and the Volk above all, next you exclude those members of the nation who don't do the same. Sometimes, they become greater enemies than the various foreign terrorists and subhumans of the rest of the world.
The Revs. Shanks and Phelps carry that so far that they have turned that exclusionary logic on the right wing -- especially Phelps, who is now deriding a war that only the right wing really supports.
Counterproductive from the point of view of taking power, but, as we Texans know, you dance with the one what brung ya, even if it happens to be mindless prejudice and unreason.
Bush is truly beyond belief. I just watched him live in his second address to the nation about the unfolding human drama and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Although I suppose it was an improvement from clowning around and playing guitar, his speech, like the first one, was all about oil refineries, pipelines (which "carry refined product"), shipping regulations, and his administration's determination to keep gas prices down.
The man really is incapable of pretending to care. The plight of a bunch of poor African-Americans in Louisiana and Mississippi obviously doesn't concern him and he'll make no effort to act as if it does.
Particularly telling was the fact that, although the talk was to present George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as overseers of a nationwide fundraising relief effort, neither of them spoke. Even his tin-eared and wooden-hearted father, let alone the pain-feeling Mr. Clinton, would have dramatically upstaged him in the impersonation of a human being.
Everyone should watch this nine-minute video about the people in the New Orleans Convention Center and the way they were essentially abandoned for several days. You can read the transcript with any browser, but you need Internet Explorer to watch the video.